Diversity efforts in universities are nothing but façade painting

Even as the diversity and inclusion programmes proliferate, calls for more far-reaching structural change in universities remain unanswered.

Hate-hacking and Zoom bombing/feature
Students attend a "March for Change" protest on the campus of Clemson University in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd on June 13, 2020 in Clemson, South Carolina [Maddie Meyer/Getty Images/AFP]

Soon after the Derek Chauvin verdict was made public on April 20, faculties at many universities and colleges in the United States and Canada received emails from administrators, asking them to provide “support” to students by offering additional drop-in office hours. Faculty were also asked to state that these hours were not just for course-related questions, but for “general checking-in”.

Some university administrators even asked faculty to acknowledge, explicitly, either verbally or in writing, that we were aware of the most recent police murders – not just that of George Floyd – the outcome of the Chauvin trial, and its potential impact on students’ mental health, as if mental health is the beginning and end of the conditions that demand urgent change on campuses. It was also clear that faculty were being directly asked to do emotional and political labour well beyond the scope of our work as educators at institutions of higher learning, and – importantly – for which most of us have neither expertise nor training.

Later, at a slew of public “town hall” style meetings, students and faculty alike were assured that we would be welcome to speak openly about racial discrimination and that our voices would be heard.

Let’s be sober in our assessment of what is actually going on.

Universities are committed to keeping things as they are, while suggesting otherwise. And, even more importantly, most university administrations expect those of us who notice that change is not happening to keep quiet and be civil about the betrayal. Those requests to faculty to look after students in a moment of crisis belie a much deeper problem in the university: its own reluctance to adequately account for the violence it is party to.

The emails and invitations to “speak your truth” are clever institutional-speak that do little but elide the institutions’ responsibility to their faculty and students. Inviting someone to “speak your truth” is a way of reducing what the speaker says to a personal interpretation of an experience of discriminatory practices and/or behaviour. It implies that the “truth” is filtered through the speaker’s emotions, that it is subjective and belongs to the speaker’s experience of events, alone – rather than an indication of “factual” realities and the intractable structural arrangement and relations of the university. Such invitations are meant to reduce observations and analysis based on evidence to “feelings” – and to ameliorate the excitable speaker with a nice, rational arm around the shoulder. In the face of these charm offences by administrators, calls for more far-reaching structural change remain unanswered, even as the diversity and inclusion offices, officers and administrators proliferate.

As institutions in which violent practices are embedded, universities and colleges declare their commitment to diversity and inclusion, talk the good liberal talk, but actually do little to make substantive change.

Institutions of higher education across the US and Canada responded to growing demands from faculty and students for institutional accountability, equity, and anti-racism practices in recent years with “diversity” and “inclusion” programmes. While these programmes achieved very little towards their declared goals, they served to neutralise resistance and revolt on campuses. These attempts to silence and subdue the calls for real change through invitations to “speak your truth” and empty inclusion programmes gained further force after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd.

In June 2020, Inside Higher Education – an online publication focusing on news and opinions relevant to colleges and universities – compiled public statements made by higher education leaders “mourn[ing] losses by the black community and call[ing] for unity”. The compilation included several poetic emails by administrators expressing their commitment to justice and assuring students that there will be additional resources to support them.

These statements, one of which started with a condemnation of property destruction as a response to police brutality, reflect clearly the underlying tensions, hypocrisies, and – ultimately – the toothlessness of higher education institutions’ responses to systemic racism.

What these statements, and many others we read and heard over the years, do not account for is the violence inside the university. The violence of white colleagues using tenure review and other reviews as disciplinary and violent tools to keep faculty of colour in place. And the statements often do not account for racist white students’ opposition to faculty of colour, and their attempts to baselessly accuse us of offering illegitimate scholarship or untrusted pedagogical practices. In fact, when faced with such cases, the university often seeks to satisfy racist students by conducting investigations, monitoring teaching, and sometimes punishing or denying tenure to the targeted faculty.

In the State University of New York-Buffalo’s “Statement from the Vice Provost for Inclusive Excellence” in response to George Floyd’s killing, Despina Stratigakos specified that the “responsibility for inclusion does not fall solely on the people of color on this campus”; she called on “everyone at UB, and especially those who have not previously considered the work of inclusion to be their responsibility, to ask yourself what you can do to become an agent of change”.

This seems like a commendable approach on the surface. Inevitably, however, what actually occurs, subsequent to these kinds of calls, is that the responsibility often falls on faculty of colour – most of whom have no experience or expertise in responding to structural and systemic racism and/or other biases – to do the difficult, if not impossible labour of being a buffer between systematic racist violence and the damage that students experience.

Due to the intersections between sexism, racism, and class violence in the US and Canada, most faculty of colour are employed in humanities and social science departments. We are paid far less than our colleagues in the sciences and engineering departments – who are overwhelmingly white and male, or first-generation immigrants from upper-middle-class families, and see little commonality between their interests and the struggles of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and poorer immigrant faculty and students.

As faculty who are not white, our workloads also include taking on emotional and psychological labour. This creates an unequal distribution of labour between us and our white colleagues. Yet, we step up to do this unpaid work, because who else will be present for our students and act in solidarity with them in our violent institutions? After all, most institutions want Black/brown students for the diversity points that they bring, but are not designed for their success.

Some faculty – especially Black and brown women – do this work as though it is their calling. Many do not think critically about the political and emotional labour that they are being asked to do. But the politics of the expectation that faculty of colour are supposed to contribute this labour – without adequate compensation that reflects the skills and expertise we bring, and the amount of time we devote to hearing and responding to students’ concerns, all of which is in addition to regular class and office time – are clear.

In the past year, several universities encouraged faculty to design and teach more courses that address “social justice” and “diversity”. Many faculty of colour are already expected to teach high-enrollment courses that fit within “diversity” requirements. And we routinely experience pushback from both white male and female students – as well as our own colleagues – as we try to tackle this mammoth task without the necessary institutional support and just compensation.

Most faculty are now required to go through some form of diversity and workplace violence awareness training – infamously, in the form of rote online modules that present unlikely scenarios and place an unrealistic level of trust on supervisors and HR. When Black, Indigenous, Latinx or immigrant faculty actually report or ask for help after having experienced harassment, hostility, and outright racist or threatening behaviour on campuses, however, we hear crickets. Often, we don’t even receive a courtesy email from our department chairs, Associate Deans or those in Provosts’ offices assigned to positions specifically meant to address diversity, inclusion, and campus safety issues.

Faculty of colour, who routinely experience that special brand of liberal institutional racism, can identify the layers of racism and gender biases in the harassment, bullying, and hostility we face. But our white colleagues, our administrators, and our human resources offices are adept at circumventing attempts to identify harassment and hostility for what they are. We carefully document each incident and ongoing case of harassment, just in case. That labour, too, has a cost.

Many of us can ill afford to leave our places of employment. The dire state of the academic job market has meant few options are available to most in academia. We live with the barely suppressed rage of our white students, who, when they look at us, only see a faculty member of colour, sometimes one with a funny accent, who dares to question their grammar and analytical or reading skills. We live with our own colleagues’ (often) unconscious biases, which result in ugly comments, bullying, and outright, systematic efforts to derail our careers. Call those colleagues to accountability, and we are sure to face shocked, vociferous denials, invitations to “speak your truth”, attempts by Human Resources Officers to make everything go away, and eventually, a return to even more skilful and underhanded hostile behaviour.

Despite few other options being open, some faculty of colour do walk away from their dreams of being powerful, effective educators. Michelle Gibbs’ open letter explaining why she was leaving St. Olaf College left no doubt about the reasons behind her decision:

“There are not enough white faculty and administrators willing to publicly teach white students how to hold themselves accountable for their racist behavior in the classroom. This unpaid emotional labor is often left to Black and brown faculty who recognize it, feel it, and (all alone) are left to call it out. It is exhausting work and doesn’t win us any favors with colleagues and administrators. We are often looked at as moody, difficult, uncaring toward white students.”

Within academia, for all its claims of supporting free speech, it is rare that Black, Latinx, Indigenous, first-generation immigrants, and women speak this openly and frankly. But Gibbs – and we – are not alone in voicing the lack of substantial support from our institutions, our documented experiences of outright hostility from colleagues, and in concluding that current diversity efforts are little more than picturesque façade-painting.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.